Sunday, November 07, 2010

Lancetilla Botanical Garden: Honduras' Green Treasure

On a recent trip to Central America, I had the opportunity to visit the Lancetilla Botanical Garden on the verdant Caribbean coast of Honduras. This 1680-hectare (4151-acre) green space and research center harbors over 1200 plant species and is said to be the second largest tropical botanical garden in the world.

Lancetilla, which gets its name from a palm tree native to Honduras, was established in 1926 by American botanist Doctor William Popenoe and his wife Dorothy. An employee of the United Fruit Company, William Popenoe set out to create experimental plantations for the study of economically important fruits and other plants. His garden has grown from modest beginnings to include species from tropical regions around the globe.

At the heart of Lancetilla lies the Biotic Reserve with 1281 hectares of protected Honduran primary and secondary humid forest. There are also 322 hectares of experimental plantations, plus the Wilson Popenoe Arboretum, which conserves tropical species from four continents. In addition, Lancetilla is home to many species of animals, including troops of endangered howler, spider, and white-faced capuchin monkeys. Some 250 species of birds have been spotted in the garden.

Our Honduran guide Salvador led our small group through the park-like Arboretum, the garden's most-visited area. On either side of meandering natural stone paths grew plants of all kinds, each identified with a sign giving both its scientific and Spanish names.

Along the way, Salvador pointed out medicinal, ornamental, and even poisonous species such as strychnine. We stopped to examine the infamous coca plant from which cocaine is made, plus we admired several national trees of Central American countries, including a giant Guanacaste tree from Costa Rica and the Honduras Pine. Salvador made sure to show us an ackee tree, the fruit of which is poisonous if improperly prepared. This tree is infamous at Lancetilla because Dorothy Popenoe, whose grave is in the garden, died in 1932 after eating an unripe ackee fruit.

Lancetilla Garden has a Visitors Center housing plant-related exhibits (signage in Spanish only) and a cafeteria. The center sells a trail map of the garden for 10 Lempiras (about US$0.50). Admission to the garden is 115 Lempiras (about US$6.00) and opening hours are 7am to 4pm daily. Guide services are available as well as birding tours. Air-conditioned cabins can be rented for overnight stays. Bring mosquito repellent, bottled water, and protection from the sun. Lancetilla Botanical Garden and Research Center is located about 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) southwest of the beach resort town of Tela.

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Lancetilla Botanical Garden, Honduras - Images by John Mitchell

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